False cognate

False cognate

False cognates are pairs of words in the same or different languages that are similar in form and meaning but have different roots. That is, they appear to be or are sometimes considered cognates when in fact they are not. Note that even false cognates may have an indirect connection between them, even if they lack a common root.

As an example of false cognates, the word for "dog" in the Australian Aboriginal language Mbabaram happens to be "dog", although there is no common ancestor or other connection between that language and English (the Mbabaram word evolved regularly from a protolinguistic form "*gudaga"). Similarly, in the Japanese language the word 'to occur' happens to be "okoru".

The basic kinship terms mama and papa comprise a special case of false cognates (cf. !Kung "ba", Chinese "bàba", Persian "baba", and French "papa" (all "dad"); or Navajo "má", Chinese "māma", Swahili "mama", Quechua "mama", and English "mama"). The striking cross-linguistical similarities between these terms are thought to result from the nature of language acquisition (Jakobson 1962). According to Jakobson, these words are the first word-like sounds made by babbling babies; and parents tend to associate the first sound babies make with themselves. Thus, there is no need to ascribe the similarities to common ancestry. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that these terms are built up from speech sounds that are easiest to produce (bilabial stops like "m" and "b" and the basic vowel "a"). However, variants do occur; for example, in Fijian, the word for "mother" is "nana", and in proto-Old Japanese, the word for "mother" was *"papa" (> ɸaɸa > haha). Furthermore, the modern Japanese word for "father," "chichi", is from older "titi". In fact, in Japanese the child's initial "mamma" is interpreted to mean "food". Similarly, in some Indian languages, such as Marathi, a child's articulation of "mum-mum" is interpreted to mean "food".

The term "false cognate" is sometimes misused to describe false friends. One difference between false cognates and false friends is that while false cognates mean roughly the same thing in two languages, false friends bear two distinct (sometimes even opposite) meanings. In fact, a pair of false friends may be true cognates (see ).

A related phenomenon is the expressive loan, which looks like a native construction, but is not.

Some historical linguists presume that all languages go back to a single common ancestor. Therefore, a pair of words whose earlier forms are distinct, yet similar, as far back as they've been traced, could in theory have come from a common root in an even earlier language, making them real cognates. The further back in time language reconstruction efforts go, however, the less confidence there can be in the outcome. Attempts at such reconstructions typically rely on just such pairings of superficially similar words, but the connections proposed by these theories tend to be conjectural, failing to document significant patterns of linguistic change. Under the disputed Nostratic theory and similar theories, some of these examples would indeed be distantly related cognates, but the evidence for reclassifying them as such is insufficient. The Nostratic hypothesis is however based on the comparative method, unlike some other superfamily hypotheses.


* Arabic/Hebrew "akh" (brother) and Mongolian "akh" (brother)
* Arabic "ana" (I) and Gondi "ana" (I)
* Arabic "anta" (you, masculine singular) and Japanese "anata" / "anta" (you, singular)
* Arabic "ard" (earth) and Dutch "aard" (earth)
* Arabic "sharif" and English "sheriff"
* Bangla "fela" (Throw Away/Put down) and English "fell" (to make something fall)
* Bangla "kaata" (To cut) and English "cut" (to sever)
* Bikol "aki" (child) and Korean "agi" (child)
* Blackfoot "aki" (woman) and Even "akhi" (woman)
* English "dork" and Russian "durak"
* Coptic "per" (house) and Etruscan "pera" (house)
* Egyptian "kns" (vagina) and Latin "cunnus" (vagina)
* Egyptian "mennu" (food) and French "menu"
* Egyptian "*maRaR" (to see, to look), Japanese "miru" (to look),Spanish "mirar" (to look at, to watch) and Portuguese "mirar" (to stare)
* English "among" and Bisayan "among" (accidentally included)
* English "am" (first person present tense of "to be"), Etruscan "am" (to be), and Sumerian "am" (to be)
* English "and" and Indonesian "dan"
* English "aye" (yes, affirmative vote) and Japanese "hai"
* English "boy" and Japanese "bōya" (young male child)
* English "bullshit" and Mandarin "búshì" (不是; isn't, not true)
* English "can" and Japanese "kan" (cylindrical metal container)
* English "cheek" and Russian "shcheka" (щека; cheek)
* English "chop" and Uzbek "chop"
* English "cut" and Vietnamese "cắt" (to cut)
* English "dairy" and Russian "doyar" (дояр; milker), "doyarka" (milkmaid)
* English "day", "daily" and Spanish "día" (day) (or Latin "dies" (day) or even English "diary")Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition.]
* English "delete" and Russian "udalit"' (удалить; to delete, remove) [?]
* English "confectionery" and Russian "konfetka" (конфетка; candy) [?]
* English "dog" and Mbabaram "dog"
* English "dung" and Korean _ko. 똥 "ttong" (excrement)
* English "earth" and Hebrew "erets" (land)
* English "egg" and Luganda "eggi"
* English "evaporate" and Russian "ispar'at' "(испарять);
* English "eye" and Hebrew "ayin" (eye)
* English "to have" and Portuguese "haver" (to exist)
* English "house" and Hungarian "ház" (house, block of flats) (the Hungarian word has corresponding counterparts in other Uralic languages)
* English "hut" and Russian "hata" (хата)
* English "island" and "isle"
* English "it", Russian "eto"(это) and Tagalog "eto"/"ito" (it, this)
* English "laser" and Scottish Gaelic "lasair" (light beam, flame)
* English "man" and Latin "humanus" (people, mankind)
* English "mount" (short form of "mountain"), and Hawaiian "mauna" (mountain)
* English "much" and Spanish "mucho"
* English "neck"/German "Genick" and Spanish "nuca" and Hungarian "nyak"
* English "pan" and Mandarin "pan" (pan, shallow plate)
* English "pen" and "pencil"
* English "pear" and Korean _ko. 배 "pay, bae" (Korean pear)
* English "persecution" and Russian "presechenie" (persecution, suppression, injunction)
* English "reason" and Russian "razum"
* English "seed" and Korean _ko. 씨 "ssi" (pip)
* English "stone" and Mandarin "shítou" (traditional 石頭, simplified 石头)
* English "strange" and Russian "stranno"(странно)
* English "stranger" and Russian "strannik"(странник)
* English "trawl" (to fish by dragging a net) and English "troll" (to fish by trailing a line)
* English "viscosity" and Russian "v'azkost"'
* English "why" and Korean _ko. 왜 "wae" (what for)
* Estonian/Finnish "ei" (no, not), Etruscan "ei" (no, not), and Norwegian "ei", Swedish "ej" (not)
* Estonian "mina"/Finnish "minä" (I), and Zulu "mina" (I)
* Estonian "ta" (short form of "tema") (he/she) and Mandarin "tā" (他) (he/she)
* Etruscan "ac" (to make, act) and Sumerian "ak" (to make,act)
* Etruscan "an" (he/she/it) and Sumerian "ane" (he/she/it)
* Etruscan "ipa" (who, which) and Sumerian "aba" (who)
* Etruscan "mi" (I/me) and Sumerian "ma" (I/me) and Korean "na" (I)
* Finnish "ja" (and) and Japanese "ya" (and)
* Finnish "sinä" (singular you) and Turkish "sen" (singular you) ----(?) (double check: Uralic and Altaic languages are (arguably) related)----
* French "garou" (wolf) and Japanese "garō" (hungry wolf)
* French "le" (the) and Samoan "le" (the)
* French "lien" (link) and Mandarin "lián"/ Vietnamese "liên" (link)
* Ga "ba" (come) and Hebrew "ba" (come)
* German "Ach, so!" and Japanese "A‘, soo" (I see)
* German "haben" (to have) and Latin "habere" (to have) [http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=have&searchmode=none Online Etymology Dictionary ] ]
* German "Kreuz" (cross) and Russian "krest" (крест; cross)
* Greek "thesato" and Russian "sosat"' (сосать; to suck)
* Greek "theos" and Latin "Deus" (God)
* Greek root "-lab-" and Sanskrit root "-labh-" (take)
* Hawaiian "kahuna" (priest) and Hebrew "kehunah" (priesthood)
* Hawaiian/Maori "wahine" (woman) and Latin "vagina"
* Hebrew "ari" (lion) and Tamil "ari" (lion)
* Hebrew "dereh" (road) and Russian "doroga" (дорога; road)
* Hebrew "shesh" (six) and Persian "shesh" (six)
* Indonesian "dua" (two) and Pashto "dwa" (two) and Korean "dul" (two) and Mandarin "dui"/ Vietnamese "doi" (pair)
* Inuktitut "kayak" and Turkish "kayık" and Choco language group "cayuca" (rowing boat)
* Italian "micio" (small cat) and Quechua "michi" (cat)
* Japanese and Portuguese "obrigado" (thank you)
* Japanese "babā" (disrespectful term meaning "old hag") and Russian "baba" (grandmother)
* Kyrgyz "ayal" (woman) and Parji "ayal" (woman)
* Korean "doki" (axe) and Mapuche natives and Easter Island Polynesian "toki" (axe)
* Luganda "na" ('and') and Dutch "en" (and)
* Spanish "y" [i] ('and') and Serbian "и/i" [i] (and)
* Spanish "mirar" ('to watch/look at') and Japanese "miru" ('to see/to watch/to look at')


* Jakobson, R. (1962) ‘Why “mama” and “papa”?’ In Jakobson, R. "Selected Writings, Vol. I: Phonological Studies", pp. 538–545. The Hague: Mouton.

* Geoff Parkes and Alan Cornell (1992), 'NTC's Dictionary of German False Cognates', National Textbook Company, NTC Publishing Group.

External links

* [http://web.archive.org/web/20070227031854/http://members.aol.com/yahyam/coincidence.html A list of false cognates]
* [http://www.terminologia.com.br/?p=47 An article about false cognates in translating from English into Brazilian Portuguese]

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